With London still shaken at its foundations after yet another horrific terrorist attack, the UK government has reopened debate on the use of encryption in mobile messaging services.
The attack took place in Westminster last Thursday, leaving four people dead and a lot more injured. Since then, according to reports, the perpetrator has been named as British man Khalid Masood. It is significant to note that he was using WhatsApp minutes before he mowed down pedestrians on Westminster bridge and stabbed a policeman to death.
However, according to police statements so far, Masood was a “lone wolf killer”, and nothing as yet has surfaced to point to WhatsApp playing any direct part in the attack. The only thing that is known is that Masood had checked his WhatsApp account shortly the attack took place, according to a screenshot taken by the Daily Mail.
In an interview with the BBC earlier today, Home Secretary Amber Rudd, responsible for internal affairs within England and Wales, said:
There should be no place for terrorists to hide; we need to make sure that organizations like WhatsApp, and there are plenty of others like that, don’t provide a secret place for terrorists to communicate with each other.
Last April, WhatsApp initiated end-to-end encryption by default, and with governments across the globe looking for methods of tackling the perceived growing threat of terrorism, it is the technology companies that are being turned to, in order to create “backdoor access” to their private communication services. Rudd said:
It used to be that people would steam open envelopes or listen in on phones if they wanted to find out what people were doing — legally, through warrants. But in this situation, we need to make sure that our intelligence services have the ability to get into situations like the encrypted WhatsApp.
During her interview with the BBC’s political editor, Andrew Marr, Rudd was asked about the parallels between Apple’s predicament last year (it resisted the FBI’ attempts to get it to help break into an accused’s phone, citing the setting of a dangerous precedent) and that of other technology companies, that included WhatsApp. Marr asked:
So do you think U.S and U.K. governments have to take on the big internet companies and force them to open their devices?
And Rudd replied,
If I was talking to Tim Cook, I would say to him that this is something completely different. We’re not saying ‘open up’, we don’t want to ‘go into the cloud’, we don’t want to do all sorts of things like that. But we do want them to recognize that they have a responsibility to engage with governments and engage with law enforcement agencies when there is a terrorist situation. We would do it all through the carefully thought-through, legally covered arrangements. But they cannot get away with saying we are a different situation.
This debate is the latest chapter in a long string of similarly themed events: YouTube facing increasing pressure from companies over the inadvertent pairing of advertisements with controversial videos, Google recently promising stricter policy enforcement and more control for brands, and Facebook, Twitter, and Google also having faced lawsuits over their roles in facilitating communications between and within terrorist organizations.